Hugh Sheppard, owner of Encore Travel, Luxury Travel Concierge, holding a sample of a card created by SendOutCards. // © 2014 Hugh Sheppard
Hugh Sheppard is first and foremost a salesman. Before opening Encore Travel - Luxury Travel Concierge six years ago in a storefront location in Urbandale, Iowa, Sheppard worked in sales in building supplies and the banking industry.
The sales stint in banking was particularly memorable.
“I was in credit card sales for big box stores where you are basically selling something nobody wants,” Sheppard said. “Now, I’m selling something that everybody wants. It’s a nice change.”
Encore Travel, a member of Vacation.com, is composed of owner/agent Sheppard, an administrative staff member and two independent contractor travel agents who live outside of Iowa.
“We’re a relatively small agency,” Sheppard said. “Most agencies of our size, in our geographic area, focus on the local demographic, but we market to the entire country. In that way, we are a little unique.”
Sheppard said his sales experience in other industries and his familiarity with a variety of business practices — some more successful than others — shaped his approach to developing and managing Encore Travel. In particular, he tracks business metrics that larger agencies, retailers in other industries and Wall Street all pay close attention to.
These include tracking average ticket on sales (total monthly sales divided by the number of bookings) and average ticket on commissions (total monthly commissions divided by the number of bookings). Based on the results, along with other metrics, Sheppard will adjust his marketing strategy to remain on track to reach sales targets.
“It’s taking a business practice from a larger firm and applying it to an individual travel agent or a small agency,” Sheppard said. “Smaller agencies can really benefit from this, and I don’t think a lot of agents are doing it.”
Encore Travel’s approach to handling client requests acknowledges the widespread availability of travel information online and the fact that most clients do a lot of research — to the point of being overwhelmed with the results — before they contact the agency.
“We’re not so much about getting information for the client about a hotel or destination,” Sheppard said. “We’re more about making the pieces fit together so they make sense. We get a lot of calls from people saying, ‘I know what I want, but I can’t make it work.’ That’s what people struggle with, and that’s our strength. We are able to dial in on creating a complex itinerary.”
A while back, Sheppard attended a local business networking event where he heard a presentation about SendOutCards, an automated system that can mail customized greeting cards to individuals included in a database.
Encore uses the system to mail out 400 to 500 cards every month, including birthday and anniversary greetings as well as bon voyage and welcome home cards. The system makes it possible to customize individual cards to include images of the cruise ship, destination, hotel or restaurant a client will visit or just experienced.
“It’s not a generic card,” Sheppard said. “It’s very personal, and the clients absolutely love it. We do it with every client.”
Encore set up the system to extend out and reach clients for 10 years. Cost is about $35 a month.
“It’s hard to tell if there is a direct connection between the cards and sales,” Sheppard said. “Basically, it’s another way to reach out and be in front of the client, and it does work. I have heard from people I booked three or four years ago who I never thought I’d hear from again. I attribute that to the fact that we are in front of them several times a year with something unique.”
“There’s going to be a great divide in retail travel,” Sheppard said. “You’re going to see the value of travel agencies increase for complex itineraries and decrease for the simple stuff. You don’t have to be in the luxury market to make money, but you do have to be in the complex market to make money. That’s where agencies need to be.”